amw (amw) wrote,

Kalona → Ottumwa → Thousand Hills → Crowder → Watkins Mill

Well this isn't exactly the urban campsite i was looking for. I managed to find myself in the middle of a biker rally.

This morning i left Kalona on a diagonal road. Diagonal roads are great when you are trying to avoid a direct headwind, and they're even better when they point exactly the direction you want to go. I passed through Pleasant Plain and popped out at Fairfield (isn't that the same thing?) which turned out to be a hippie town. Unfortunately i got there just as all the restaurants were closing. I never got so overjoyed and had my hopes crushed so quickly. Vegetarian restaurant after vegetarian restaurant, denied!

Eventually i slipped into a second hand bookshop slash café that could make me a BLT with vege bacon in the 5 minutes before they closed. You know you're in a hippie town when not only do they serve vege bacon (notoriously not at all bacon-like), but they also serve it on wholemeal bread with seeds on top, and the "lettuce" is sprouts. And the choice of side is chips or... apple. Apple! It was good. It tasted like something mom would make.

It seems the town is right next to Maharishi International University, which is a private college based around the Transcendental Meditation teachings of a famous guru. The town is full of new age shops selling crystals and books and art and all the kind of stuff my mom and some of my friends would love. I'd have loved it too twenty years ago, but as mentioned on my post about hanging in the Similkameen, i lost my faith and just find it quaint these days.

I puzzled over where to go from Fairfield, because i really wanted to go south but the wind sucked too much. So i decided to go west, but then i realized i'd have to cycle along a divided freeway because the detour would be so roundabout that i might as well have been cycling south anyway.

Fuck it. I rode the freeway. I rode it halfway, anyway. It fucking sucked. The shoulder was soft, so if i'd cycled there i would've basically just been cycling gravel. But the tiny hard sliver to the edge of the lane where the line was painted had fucking rumble strips. So i badumped and bazumped my way along with cars and trucks screaming past me at 65 miles an hour, then peeled off at Batavia where the detour became just an extra 15 minutes instead of an extra hour.

Gravelled it all the way to Ottumwa, where i pulled into the urban campsite and found the park next to it full of RVs and motorcycles and porta potties and a vast tent playing rock and roll music. I couldn't ride any further, though, so got a tent spot - the last one in the official campsite.

Man this is a place alright. This is the first campsite where my neighbors appear to be homeless. Like, not bums on the street homeless, but living out of a tent and paying for the spot, so sort of a step above living on the street. No car. Just a tent and some boxes of shit. The sort of "i lost my job then my landlord kicked me out" homeless, or "just got out of prison" homeless, the sort of homeless some of my friends have been in the past. Living out of a car, if you got one, sleeping on friends' couches, or camping in their yards. But if your friends' living situations are equally precarious, or they have their own drama going on, then you set up a base in a campsite while you try get your shit back together.

Actually, i have a feeling i've seen the female version of that too. In some of the rural campsites i visited, i saw several women on their own by an SUV without a tent. At first i thought they were still pitching the tent, but no. Single women with camping chairs and a stove to cook up a decent meal, but sleeping in the backs of their cars. And this isn't the typical vandweller type, like bandana-wearing, dreadlock-having, pot-smoking hippie kinda thing. And it's not the outdoorsy type either, in hiking gear. These are women who, for want of a better description, look like suburban moms, in middle class casual clothes, wearing make-up, sitting on their phones and so on. After seeing a few of them now, i suspect they might be homeless too.

The men here in town are the sunbaked, shirts-off, tats-out, tweaker-lookin' types who might be a bit rough around the edges, so i can understand some women might feel more comfortable with the company at rural campsites.

I'm thinking about gender because i got given a code for the bathrooms here, and when i tried to go just now, i realized that unlike the urban campsites in Canada that just had one bathroom code to keep non-campers out, this one has separate codes for men and women. And i got given the men's one. For fuck's sake.

Ever since i left BC, people have been reading me for male. I stopped shaving my legs and pits since the pandemic, but plenty of women don't shave. And yeah, i'm tall and have a deep voice and wear men's shorts and pants. But i also wear a bra and tank top and have somewhat feminine vocal mannerisms and body language. I mean, i can't be bothered correcting people because i think gender is stupid and don't want to perpetuate it, but usually it doesn't matter if they think i'm a man (or a woman) because in practice it makes no difference. But now i've been explicitly stuck in the man box and that kinda annoys me. More for the fact that the fucking toilets are segregated in the first place than because i'm worried about peeing in the men's. It's just all so dumb. Why should it even matter?

I noticed in bigger towns in Canada when i asked where the toilets were in a bar they'd say "men are over here, women are over there", thereby acknowledging the fact that people should be able to choose to pee wherever they feel comfortable peeing. Smaller places just have unisex toilets because why bother segregating at all? But this forcing people into one box or the other, where you are literally locked out of the other place, based on some kind of subjective assessment by the owner, it's divisive and regressive and actually kind of offensive. If i was staying longer i'd say something, but overnight, fuck, i'll deal.

I just hate this outdated culture of forcing people to either be Men or Women, as if that should have any impact on your life. Just let people be people. Let them do what they want. Fuck. Gender sucks so hard.


One of my neighbors came to ask for water. There is a hydrant right by our tents but it was an excuse to say hello. He was having cold instant coffee for breakfast too. When he heard i was cycling he's like "cops don't fuck with you, bro?" This is a common refrain i've heard from hobos and homeless all over America. Cops fucking with you.

I have to admit i was a bit worried when i was cycling the freeway yesterday and the cops sped past with lights flashing, but i guess they had bigger fish to fry. Last night they rolled around the campsite looking for people to fuck with. The police are definitely a more ominous presence in the US than Canada. I've been through a few small towns that in Canada wouldn't even have a police force, they'd rely on RCMP from three towns over, but here there's a sheriff's truck, sitting there conspicuously, looking threatening. I just keep getting flashes through my head of getting stopped at gunpoint because i am loitering, or breaking some weird local bylaw or something. It's happened to people i know. This ain't China, but it's a whole lot more heavily policed than Europe or Canada.

My neighbor said going south sure would be warmer, but he recommended south Texas, "i'm from there, bro, way better than Florida". He said Corpus was the place to be, "well, not Corpus itself, but around there". He'd been in a scrap recently, ear all stitched up. Might've been the cops fucking with him, eh?

Anyway, i had some luck this morning that the forecast rain didn't arrive, so i'm gonna try get to Missouri. There's storms on the horizon, literally, so let's see what we can see.


I am getting so sick of these hills and these trees.

Yesterday i decided to head south, directly into the wind, partly so i could get to Missouri, but also to minimize the amount of time spent in the rain blowing north. The ride was fine. Tiring, but hey, that's been every day since i got to the US. I stopped in at a Dutch country store for some bulk goods, then crossed the state line. I did not buy fireworks or cigarettes, which are pretty much the only shops you see for the first 10 miles.

I decided to take a chance and eat at another roadside bar to see if it was less offensive than the one in Minnesota. It was. The place i stopped at felt more like the bars i went to in Texas - country music on the radio, roadside paraphernalia hanging on the walls, people talking about their own lives instead of regurgitating political talking points from the TV, and lots and lots of meat. I got a bacon cheeseburger, and it was a very good one. I feel like my theory of the food getting better the more south you go in America is holding up.

I was served by a woman in jeans and t-shirt and a trucker hat, and it made me feel more comfortable than the more feminine and gendered presentation that seemed to be preferred further north. She spoke with a southern accent that was hard to understand, but then i realized everyone does here. It's going to take a bit for my ears to adjust.

So, i was in a good mood. Stopped into a grocery store in Kirkville where i heard a half dozen different languages and it felt like i'd reentered the diverse and colorful version of America that you'd almost be forgiven for thinking was just a television invention if you only hung out in rural Iowa and Minnesota.

I spent the night at Thousand Hills state park, which was... eh. It's just some hills with trees on them. I looked up a bit more about Missouri and Arkansas on Wikipedia because i am completely ignorant of the geography and culture of these states, and made the unfortunate discovery that they are covered in more hills with more trees. There's a whole damn chunk of them, called the Ozarks, and apparently that's the scenic highlight of the state, but the pictures look horrendous to me.

I guess, naively, i thought since this state is named for the Missouri, and since the Missouri i have in my head is Montana and the Dakotas, the state would be full of plains that are great. But so far there are no plains, and it is not great. Even Iowa, which people joke about being flat and full of corn, was disappointingly riddled with creeks and rivers and hills and trees. The areas where you could really see the horizon and breathe were short - just a couple hours of cycling at best. And now Missouri is a bundle of all the worst parts of Iowa? Ugh.

I'm heading west today to try find the river, and of course the wind has changed direction so i still have a headwind. And the first hour was tedious. Just endless hills and trees. It's relentless. It reminds me of the West (aka "Worst") Kootenay region, but at least in the Kootenays you'd occasionally see a bare, rocky ridge on the south face that you could pretend extended further into an epic mesa or butte. Here you reach the top of a hill, and there are just more hills, and no view, because there are too many trees in the way.

I am briefly stopped in a town called Green Castle which does not have a castle, although it is fairly green i suppose. I am trying to cheer myself up but i'm caught in a depressive loop. I am so sick of this dark landscape where everything looks exactly the same. It's so claustrophobic. Dirty, damp, depressing. I don't even care if the food is better and the people are nicer down here. I just want to see a fucking horizon again. I hate this landscape so much. I feel like i am trapped.


Okay i'm in Milan. A town with nothing except for three taquerias. So, basically, the best possible place to improve my mood. I hope i picked the best one. I have no mobile signal so i am going by vibe.


Well, the rain finally caught up with me. After dodging the downpour for days, my tent is getting a heavy dowsing. The good news is that my tent is up and i have already showered and eaten. The bad news is... rain.

Today was, i think, my worst day on the road since the Nelson to Creston day. But then combine it with the headwinds and dampness of southeastern Saskatchewan. So. Worst day. The hills were absolutely relentless. Heading west out of Milan, the road to Osgood was nonstop up and down with brutally steep grades. There was never a moment to relax, i was constantly upshifting and downshifting and fighting the wind and pushing with all my might to get to the next "summit". Except there was no summit because the hills went on forever. Cloudy sky, humid air, trees and bog and undergrowth everywhere. Oh, and no cell signal. It was the fucking dirt worst.

At Osgood it briefly leveled out. Not sure if i'd call it a town because the only thing i saw there was an abandoned building. And there are a bunch up this end of Missouri. Due to the climate, presumably, they aren't dried out boards that look like something out of a old western. They are rotting and collapsing and overgrown and look like the kind of place that'd house a serial killer, or a vampire nest, or some other unhinged murderous southern gothic antagonist.

I was getting extremely anxious and unhappy. Eventually i got back onto a numbered highway but the hills just kept on going. All i could think was "fuck this, i'm going to Kansas, i can't fucking take this shit any more". But Kansas is two days away, and the flat part is even further.

As i came down the hill in Trenton an entire squadron of black flies or midges or some other disgusting insect decided to do a suicide run. I rolled into town covered in dead insects, all stuck to my skin, my clothes, my everything. And still no fucking cell signal. I was at my wit's end.

I decided to press on to Crowder state park, because hey, it couldn't get any fucking worse.

It didn't get worse. It got better. The park is a bunch of hills with trees all over it, fine, but i got a spot that should catch a decent amount of morning sun to help dry off my tent. I mean, if the sun even comes out. It didn't today. But still. One can hope.

The camp host was really friendly and helpful, and suggested i get a shower ("you can use any one you like, they're all private entrance"). I took her up and it improved my mood a lot to wash the bugs off me.

So far today strongly upheld my feeling that Missouri has fine people but shit landscape. Shame that bike touring involves a lot more experiencing the landscape than interacting with the people.

Last night i had a friendly chat with a park ranger, and the camp host too. The host was into tornados and storms and talked about one that went through Iowa last year ("did you see any of the places where it hit?"), and the big one that sliced through Joplin a while back.

And the Mexican restaurant? The food was fine, but the owner was better, having a long chat with me about bike touring and local events and traveling around the US in general. When i said i was in Minneapolis he looked at me earnestly and asked "how is it there?" And i was expecting another small town treatise on how it's a warzone and i'll get shot and bla bla, but then he said "i heard it's really beautiful, especially this time of year when the trees turn". He did say he'd recommend Kansas City over St Joseph when i said i was thinking of heading up there to bypass the city. He said if you're going all that way might as well go to the big city where there is more to do. He said his brother lives in St Joseph and the crime is pretty bad. Which presumably it's no worse than Kansas City, but i get where he's coming from because big cities tend to be safer than small cities. There is more nightlife and foot traffic and open-minded folks who will actually give a shit if someone who is an outsider or a minority gets targeted. On the other hand, there are also professional bike thieves, which is my main concern.

But that's a tomorrow problem. Assuming i even get there tomorrow. Since i have no cell signal i have no idea what the weather or wind will do.


It rained all night long. Easily the most i've been rained on yet. One corner of my tent appears to be in a small dip which is collecting water and has gotten damp through the floor. I moved my (waterproof) pack around to cover it and slept with my legs on the other side. No biggie, i have a synthetic bag and it's warm out anyway, but just a reminder of how much more annoying it is to camp in the rain. You can't just relax and sleep, there's always some bullshit to deal with.

God i fucking hate rain. I hate the trees, i hate the hills, i hate the dirt and the muck and the bugs and the rot. I miss the dust and the wind and the clear empty skies. I miss the desert. I hate it here.

I guess the one good thing is at least it's not cold. Warm and humid beats cold and humid every time. So it could be worse.


Aside from a blissful downhill section between Jamesport and Gallatin, today was more of the same. It's so frustrating to constantly be going up hills only to go back down a hill and go up again. It's Sisyphean. There is no reward. There's no view. You can't even enjoy the downhill because 2 seconds later you're going back up again. These are useless hills. They don't form the edge of a glacial valley. They don't lead up to a mountain. They're just... there. Being pains in my ass. All day long.

Not having any cell reception, i planned to stop at Cameron for lunch and to reset my plans around where to head next based on the weather report and my gut feeling. And, boy, Cameron was a sad town. A lot of towns up this north end of Missouri are dying, but Cameron is Interstate Dying. Or Walmart Dying. Take your pick. It's like so many towns in California, and probably all over America. All the new development is clustered around the interstate. Walmart. Fast food chains. Strip malls where everything is a national chain. And then downtown dies, and everything that made the town unique dies, and the only thing left is a Mexican restaurant.

I went there for lunch, and lordy if i was going to get COVID on this ride, that was the place. Seemed like the whole damn town was there. It wasn't even a good Mexican restaurant, but aside from a family restaurant and (as i discovered when i was cycling out of town) a Chinese restaurant, that was it for non chain places. Well, there was some BBQ too but not open Sunday, during the day at least.

All those empty storefronts.

In the restaurant i caught the eye of the most foppish cowboy i've seen outside of a gay bar. He had a pristine hat with a leather tie, and a chrome-handled knife on his hip. He was a young man with beautiful blue eyes and i think was there with his girlfriend. The couple in the next booth was tattooed, bra strap hangin' out, hairy unkempt beard. A big table of Mexican laborers. What appeared to be a Mennonite family, or certainly dressed ankle to wrist to chin. It was weirdly diverse, but also country as fuck.

I ended up heading south to spend my third night in a row in a Missouri state park. This one is Watkins Mill, another reservoir with a bunch of hills and trees around it, but i think there is a historic building here too. There were petroglyphs at Thousand Hills (most accurately named state park ever). I haven't seen any of the sights because by the time i get to the next place, it's too late. But, also, none of them have really piqued my interest anyway.

I want to see a wilderness, one that's vast and desolate and pristine. I want to see rocks that cast incredible shadows and change color in the sunset. I want to feel tiny and alone and free.

I dunno. I still don't have a plan for tomorrow either. I will make the Missouri for sure, but will i go to Kansas City or skip over it? I want to touch the river, to put my hands in the same water that i last touched way back in Cypress Hills, or Grasslands, in Saskatchewan. But aside from that i just want to find a peaceful route south that isn't relentlessly full of hills and trees and goddamn bugs flying into my mouth and nose and splattering themselves all over my torso.

Well, perhaps i can't avoid that last part given the humidity. But still.

I had this illusion that "the south" was all sugar and banana plantations, orange and peach orchards, crossroads with bluesmen selling their soul to the devil, and yeah some swamps, but flatass swamps with viaducts and Miami Vice music playing. And beaches and sunsets. I mean, maybe that part is still coming, but by the sounds of it there's gonna be a whole lot more of this tedious, depressing and soul-crushing landscape to get there.

I could turn back, go west where i know i will love every minute of the ride, but it feels like a cop-out. I mean, i should at least make a go of it, right? I don't need to go to the Ozarks or the Ouachitas or the Appalachians if i don't want, regardless of all the advice i'm getting about how beautiful it is, or how many bike trails there are out there, or whatever. I can just go Gulf Coast where at least perhaps i will have a big horizon on one side. Although probably also just a massive freeway too. Ah, fuck it, i'll figure it out after i visit Kansas. Maybe i just need to to rinse my brain out with a day of flatness.
Tags: american dream, bike, travel

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